10 Urban Planning Songs

Abhijeet Chavan's picture


Musician David Byrne, formerly the leader of theband Talking Heads and now an advocate of bike-friendly urban planning, remarked in a recent interview :

" if somebody could write a song about [city planning] I'd have to stand up and cheer for them. No. There are some things you just can't write songs about."

While there may not be popular songs specifically mentioning urban planning, there are many songs about cities and the impact of planning decisions. Here are my 10 of favorites.

(Update Dec 10: I added 5 more songs suggested by readers.) 


1. Big Yellow Taxi

I can't think of a more concise criticism of planning decisions than these incisive lyrics from Joni Mitchell's 1970 hit Big Yellow Taxi:

They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot

In this live version she sings an extra verse:

Late last night
I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow tractor
Came and took away my house, it took away my land

According to Wikipedia, Joni said this about writing the song:

I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.

The "tree museum" Joni sings about refers to the Honolulu's Foster Botanical Garden, a museum of endangered tropical plants. (Wikipedia)


2. Our Town


Written by Randy Newman & sung by James Taylor, this Grammy-winningsong from the 2006 Disney/Pixar film Cars is about the decline of a fictional town after the creation of Interstate Highway 40 (Wikipedia). In the movie, the song is introduced with these words:

Forty years ago, the interstate down there didn't exist. Back then cars came across the country a whole different way. The road didn't cut through the land like that interstate it moved with the land it rose, it fell, it curved.

Cars didn't drive on it to make great time, they drove on it to have a great time."

Note the visualization of the fictional town Radiator Springs – thelayout of the city, the architecture, the traffic volume, the scenes of abandoned streets.


3. My City Was Gone

This 1982 rocker, written by Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders is aboutrunaway urban development around Akron, Ohio and the leveling of Akron's historic center to make way for an urban plaza (Wikipedia).

I went back to Ohio
but my city was gone
there was no train station
there was no downtown
South Howard had disappeared
all my favorite places
my city had been pulled down
reduced to parking spaces
Ay-o, way to go, Ohio

4. Four Wal-Marts

South Carolina artist Baker Maultsby writes about "an Old South region struggling to accommodate such modern abominations as theme restaurants, superstore chains and urban sprawl." (No Depression)

Strip malts on both sides of the street
Asphalt on top of concrete
They closed the door on the five and dime
But the west side's growing like a kudzu vine
We've got four Wal-Marts
In the tri-county area
An outlet mall
It's bargain hysteria
We got a HP with a cappuccino machine
An Exxon attached to a Dairy Queen
'Cause it's small town, mall town America

5. Traffic Jam



James Taylor captures the frustration of a commuter heading back home in this song:

Well I left my job about 5 o'clock
It took fifteen minutes go three blocks
Just in time to stand in line
With a freeway looking like a parking lot

The song is inspired by an actual traffic jam on the Pacific CoastHighway in Los Angeles. Taylor ends the songs with a statement about "fossil fuel".


6. Mansion on the Hill

In this evocative song from Bruce Springsteen's acoustic masterpiece Nebraska (1982), the town, its geography, and a mansion behind "gates of hardened steel" form a backdrop to childhood memories.

At night my daddy'd take me
and we'd ride through the streets of a town so silent and still
Park on a back road along the highway side
Look up at that mansion on the hill


7. Our Town

This hauntingly beautiful song by Iris Dement takes us on a tour of a hometown's landmarks. To the singer, the places have a meaning because of deeply personal memories:

It's here I had my babies and I had my first kiss.
I've walked down Main Street in the cold morning mist.
Over there is where I bought my first car.
It turned over once but then it never went far.



8. Allentown



Billy Joel's 1982 hit Allentown is about living in an industrial city "coping with the demise of the American manufacturing industry"(Wikipedia). Joel had originally named the song "Levittown". Levittown in Long Island is considered to be the first "mass-produced suburb[and] widely regarded as the archetype for postwar suburbs throughout the country" (Wikipedia).

Well we're living here in Allentown
And they're closing all the factories down
And we're waiting here in Allentown.
But they've taken all the coal from the ground



9. Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans


Performed by Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday, this classic from the 1947 movie New Orleans is a love song to a city. The lyrics don'tmention streets or buildings; in this song, the focus is on the landscape and nature:

Miss the moss-covered vines
the tall sugar pines
where mockingbirds used to sing
And I like to see the lazy Mississippi
hurrying into spring
The moonlight on the bayou
a Creole tune
that fills the air
I dream of Magnolias in bloom
and soon I'm wishin' that you were there



10. I Love L.A.



Every major city should have a song that can be sung by a cheering crowd when the home team wins a championship. Los Angeles has "I LoveL.A." written & sung by Randy Newman (1983).

From the South Bay to the Valley
From the West Side to the East Side
Everybody's very happy
'Cause the sun is shining all the time
Century Boulevard (We love it)
Victory Boulevard (We love it)
Santa Monica Boulevard (We love it)
Sixth Street (We love it, we love it)

After painting an unflattering black-and-white view of New York and Chicago, the music video bursts into a colorful montage of clips ofLos Angeles. When Newman sings "look at that mountain" the clip shown is of a fake mountain at Disneyland.

This song is an example of Newman's ambivalence toward the American Dream, as it celebrates living the dream ("look at that mountain, look at those trees"), while giving a nod to those who have been unable to fulfill the dream ("look at that bum he's down on his knees"). Newman also presents this dichotomy by incorporating the names of L.A.'s Century Boulevard, Victory Boulevard, Santa Monica Boulevard, Imperial Highway and 6th Street into the lyrics of the song. Traversing any one of these roadways from end to end will reveal some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest areas of the city. (Wikipedia)


More songs about cities

Wikipedia hasa listof songs about cities. Twenty-seven world cities have pages oftheir own including 12 U.S. cities of Atlanta, Birmingham, AL,Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, New Orleans,New York City, California/San Francisco/the Bay Area, and Seattl.

Updated Dec 10, 2010 with readers' favorites

11. The Suburbs



Planetizen reader Warren inFH recommends the album The Suburbs (2010) by the band Arcade Fire.

In the suburbs I
I learned to drive
And you told me we'd never survive
Grab your mother's keys we're leavin'
Under the overpass
In the parking lot we're still waiting
It's already passed
So move your feet from hot pavement and into the grass
Cause it's already passed
It's already, already passed!


12. The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong


jasontinkey sent in this gem by The Jam from their 1982 album The Gift.

They were gonna build communities
It was going to be pie in the sky
If people were made to live in boxes
God would have given them string
To tie around their selves at bed time
And stop their dreams falling through the ceiling
... But planners just get embarrassed
when their plans go wrong



13. Subdivisions



Reader cytrain recommends Subdivisions (1982) by the band Rush.

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown



14. Empire State of Mind



UrbanOmnibus recommends this 2009 collaboration between Jay-Z & Alicia Keys (Wikipedia).

Yea I'm out that Brooklyn, now I'm down in TriBeCa
right next to Deniro, but I'll be hood forever
I'm the new Sinatra, and... since I made it here
I can make it anywhere, yea, they love me everywhere
... New York, concrete jungle where dreams are made of
There's nothin' you can't do
Now you're in New York
These streets will make you feel brand new
Big lights will inspire you
Let's hear it for New York, New York,New York



15. Cities



UrbanOmnibus also adds Cities by The Talking Heads.

I'm checking them out
I'm checking them out
I got it figured out
I got it figured out
There's good points and bad points
Find a city
Find myself a city to live in.
Down El Paso way things get pretty spread out
People got no idea where in the world they are
They go up north and come back south
Still got no idea where in the world they are.



Abhijeet Chavan is co-founder and co-editor-in-chief of Planetizen.



Songs and Cities

Maybe it's my unnatural attachment to my iPod, but to me music and cities go hand in hand. I even have soundtracks for specific walks I take around various neighborhoods.

In honor of the 2010 Janes' Walk this past spring, I created my own 'urban planning soundtrack, entitled Songs in the Key of Jane. Your list contains a few I hadn't considered before. I will be sure to consider them for Volume II!

Michael Lewyn's picture

Speaking of Jane Jacobs...

Weakerthans, "One Great City"


The song is about Winnipeg; ironically, the photo montage is of Toronto.

You missed the best one!

"Subdivisions" by Rush!

Sprawling on the fringes of the city
In geometric order
An insulated border
In between the bright lights
And the far unlit unknown

Growing up it all seems so one-sided
Opinions all provided
The future pre-decided
Detached and subdivided
In the mass production zone
Nowhere is the dreamer or the misfit so alone

In the high school halls
In the shopping malls
Conform or be cast out
In the basement bars
In the backs of cars
Be cool or be cast out
Any escape might help disprove the unattractive truth
But the suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth

Drawn like moths we drift into the city
The timeless old attraction
Cruising for the action
Lit up like a firefly
Just to feel the living night

Well some will sell their dreams for small desires
Or lose the race to rats
Get caught in ticking traps
And start to dream of somewhere
To relax their restless flight
Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights...


And perhaps the greatest?

the most planning-specific of all? "The Planner's Dream Goes Wrong" by the Jam. Household names in Britain.


Also the inspiration for my blog.



Thanks, that is a goodie.

From New Zealand artist "Recloose" comes this instrumental only, music video celebrating the suburban lifestyle:

"Mana's Bounce":


More songs about cities

Check out the CD "Some Cities" by Doves - the songs "Some Cities" and "Black And White Town"
and almost the entire CD - "The Suburbs" by Arcade Fire. Great music too...

corner store

Jonathan Richman's "Corner Store" is my favorite:


Well I walked past just yesterday
And I couldn't bear that new mall no more
I can't expect you all to see it my way
But you may not know what was there before
And I want them to put back my old corner store.

Well I walked past just like I say
And I felt this hurt that would not go home
I can't expect that you're gonna see it my way
But you may not know the trees I've known
And I want them to put back my old corner store.

I know it costs more money to shop there
But this was love, this was love
I know you had to pay more money
I'll pay money, I'll pay more
I don't care what the mall has got
I want back that corner store

And what did I feel when I walked by slow
Sorrow sorrow, all around
Why I would feel sorrow I now know
I smell a ghost smell from the ground
That old wooden smell from the old corner store

Michael Lewyn's picture

Yikes- so depressing!

Most of the songs above are really depressing- either nostalgia for lost Main Streets, or wails about the drab suburbs. To balance things a bit, here are a few feel-good alternatives:

For New York, "On the Town" opening: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4-3U1t7Qdc

For Baltimore, "Good Morning Baltimore":

For Dallas, "Big D"

For San Francisco, "San Francisco Open Your Golden Gate"

Abhijeet Chavan's picture

Upbeat songs about cities


So true! Thanks for adding some cheer to the list.

"New York, New York" is fun and the scenes of 1940s New York skyline are a bonus.

"...most fabulous sight is New York
In the light of day, our only day.
New York, New York, it's a wonderful town,
The Bronx is up and the Battery's down,
The people ride in a hole in the ground"

Open Letter (to a Landlord) by Living Colour

Now you can tear a building down
But you can't erase a memory
These houses may look all run down
But they have a value you can't see...

Urban Planning Songs - indirect reference

Second Nature by RUSH

A memo to a higher office
Open letter to the powers that be
To a god, a king, a head of state
A captain of industry
To the movers and the shakers...
Can't everybody see?

It ought to be second nature
I mean, the places where we live
Let's talk about this sensibly
We're not insensitive
I know progress has no patience
But something's got to give

I know you're different
You know I'm the same
We're both too busy
To be taking the blame
I'd like some changes
But you don't have the time
We can't go on thinking
It's a victimless crime
No one is blameless
But we're all without shame
We fight the fire while we're feeding the flames

Folks have got to make choices
And choices got to have voices
Folks are basically decent
Conventional wisdom would say
But we read about the exceptions
In the papers every day

It ought to be second nature
At least, that's what I feel
Now I lay me down in Dreamland
I know perfect's not for real
I thought we might get closer
But I'm ready to make a deal

Today is different, and tomorrow the same
It's hard to take the world the way that it came
Too many rapids keep us sweeping along
Too many captains keep on steering us wrong
It's hard to take the heat
It's hard to lay blame
To fight the fire while we're feeding the flames

What About Charlie on the MTA?

Classic campaign song about a proposal to raise fares in Boston:

Let me tell you the story
Of a man named Charlie
On a tragic and fateful day
He put ten cents in his pocket,
Kissed his wife and family
Went to ride on the MTA

Charlie handed in his dime
At the Kendall Square Station
And he changed for Jamaica Plain
When he got there the conductor told him,
"One more nickel."
Charlie could not get off that train.


Did he ever return,
No he never returned
He may ride forever
He's the man who never returned.

Now all night long
Charlie rides through the tunnels
Saying, "What will become of me?
How can I afford to see
My sister in Chelsea
Or my cousin in Roxbury?"

Charlie's wife goes down
To the Scollay Square station
Every day at quarter past two
And through the open window
She hands Charlie a sandwich
As the train comes rumblin' through.

Now you citizens of Boston,
Don't you think it's a scandal
That the people have to pay and pay
Vote for Walter A. O'Brien
Fight the fare increase!
And fight the fare increase
Vote for George O'Brien!
Get poor Charlie off the MTA.

Rents are WHAAAT in L. A. ?

I have often thought that something obviously went wrong with L.A. some time after Neil Diamond sang

"L.A.'s fine, the sun shines most of the time
And the feeling is laid back
Palm trees grow, and RENTS ARE LOW.........."


(Song: "I am, I said" - 1971)

Planning songs

Here is one by the Tom Russell (no relation) Band:
US Steel Tom Russell Band

Homestead Pennsylvania, the home of the U.S. Steel
And the men down at the Homestead Works
Are sharing one last meal
Sauerkraut and kielbasa, a dozen beers or more
A hundred years of pouring slab,
They’re closing down the door
And this mill won’t run no more.

There’s silence in the valley, there’s silence in the streets
There’s silence every night here upon these cold white sheets
Were my wife stares out the window with a long and lonely stare
She says “you kill yourself for 30 years but no one seems to care”

You made their railroads rails and bridges, you ran their driving wheels
And the towers of the Empire State are lined with Homestead Steel
The Monongahela valley no longer hears the roar
There is cottonwood and sumac weeds inside the slab mill door
And this mill won’t run no more.

Michael Lewyn's picture

on a more pro-suburban note

Wodehouse's post on "Mana's Bounce"* reminds me of these:

"Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway" (about commuter train suburbs), at

"Somewhere that's Green" (in a more Levittown-y mode)

*Which I have to admit seems more like a resort than a suburb to me, since I'm used to suburbanites pretty much spending 100% of their time inside or in parking lots- but maybe New Zealand is different!

songs about the Atlantic Yards controversy in Brooklyn

The Burrow, by John Pinamonti
"It makes me mad/and it's such a pity/they're trying to rename Brooklyn/Forest City"

Brooklyn is Dying, by RebelMart
"If Freddy's [bar] goes down/Brooklyn is gone"

Norman Oder
Atlantic Yards Report
Brooklyn, NY

James Brasuell's picture

Two hipster cents

It's surprising that the great David Byrne neglected the contributions of The Modern Lovers and the solo career of singer and guitarist Jonathan Richman (Talking Heads keyboard player Jerry Harrison was originally in the Lovers). Recommended songs related to planning from the Lovers: "The Old World", "Hospital", "Modern World", and "Walk Up the Street". Jonathan Richman solo career: "City vs. Country", "Rooming House on Venice Beach", and "Twilight in Boston".

Also, "Empire State of Mind" should be number one on this list. In fact, it should be the national anthem (I admit a significant urbanist bias).

Urban Planning Songs - The Sustainability Song

The Sustainability Song (Dogless Bill Nemser)

Take a tree, cut it down...
put seven seeds, back in the ground
Take good care of what you got...
if you don’t want another parking lot

U.N. man, and Meadows said...
one hundred years, the planets dead
Brundtland lady, she said get lost...
Professor Vos done pissed her off


Don’t want to live with the New Urbans...
My fossil fuel of choice is bourbon
The Everglades, have been negated...
but having water is overrated

Dr. Hardin, c’mon I’m pleading...
get out my common, You know I’m breeding
Silent Spring, won’t come oh no…
our DDT is down in Mexico


You warn the eco systems shot,
the ozone's thin they say it’s not,
well Milbrath he got very wordy,
but what he’s seein’ sure ain’t prettyeee...

Planning triangle shaped my social thinking...
it occurred to Campbell after social drinking
Bush said the owls won’t be saved before us…
and Gore said he rescued the stegosaurus

It’s hard to be optimistic…
If you see Times Beach tourist statistics
My baby tells me that I’m a downer...
when the Artic melts it’ll probably drown her


Written, produced and performed by Dogless Bill Nemser July 2002
®Copyright 2002, all rights reserved

Updated link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sp9Vo7ngpq0 (Editor: Sep 30, 2013)

The Big Country (Talking Heads) 1978

Alot of Byrne's stuff is on similar themes, as is Newman's, as in "Baltimore"

I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaurants and bars for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.
I see the parkway that passes through them all.
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,


I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I wouldn't live like that, no siree!
I wouldn't do the things the way those people do.
I wouldn't live there if you paid me to.

I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it; I guess it tastes real good.

They grow it in those farmlands
Then they bring it to the store
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say...


I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I wouldn't live like that, no siree!
I wouldn't do the things the way those people do.
I wouldn't live there if you paid me to.

I'm tired of looking out the window of the airplane
I'm tired of travelling, I want to be somewhere.
It's not even worth talking
About those people down there.

Goo Goo Ga Ga Ga
Goo Goo Ga Ga Ga

the failure of high rise social housing

Up in Heaven - The Clash

The towers of London, these crumbling
Reality estates that the hero's got
And every hour's maked by the chime of a clock
And whatcha gonna do when the darkness surrounds?
You can piss in the lifts which have broken down
You can watch from the debris the last bedroom light
We're invisible here just past midnight

The wives hate their husbands and their husbands don't care
Their children daub slogans to prove they lived there
A giant pipe organ up in the air
You can't live in a home which should not have been built
By the bourgeoise clerks who bear no guilt
When the wind hits this building this building it tilts
One day it will surely fall to the ground...

Fear is just another commodity here
They sell us peeping holes to peek when we hear
A bang on the door resoundingly clear
Who would really want to move in here?
The children play faraway, the corridors are bare
This room is a cage its like captivity
How can anyone exist in such misery?

It has been said not only here

"Allianza dollars are spent
To raise the towering buildings
For the weary bones of the workers
To go back in the morning
To be strong in the morning"

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